One day it occurred to me that I no longer knew how to answer when people asked, "how are you?"
I don't know when it happened exactly. All I know is that this ordinary, everyday question was quite literally stopping me in my tracks.
A friend or coworker who I hadn’t seen in a while would enthusiastically ask, “how are you?!” and I would become speechless (which if you know me, you know that's really saying something).
I would pause waiting for the right words to appear.
How am I?
How am I?
How am I?
Multiple answers would try to come out all at once creating a logjam. It was as it they were competing for attention.
Pick me! Pick me!
I would frantically search for a word or sentence that would adequately and accurately sum up what it's been like to be me lately.
There were so many different ways I could answer and they would all be true. So how could I choose? And what would the significance be of my choice?
If I choose to share about a struggle I'm having, am I being a downer? Would it seem like I'm looking for sympathy? Would it mean I'm ungrateful for the good things that are also happening? If I choose to highlight something that's going well, would it seem like I'm bragging? Would it mean I'm ignoring or minimizing the very real pain I'm also experiencing?
I realize this might just sound like a whole lotta overthinking. And in a way, it is. Overthinking is one of my special skills. I’ve considered putting it on my resume. But, I also believe there is something important about this inquiry
If we're really paying attention to all the things going on in our lives, "how we're doing" is often something we can't sum up at all.
Rarely is life all good or all bad.
Most of the time, life is like a swirl.
A swirl of good and bad; of triumph and failure; of gratitude, longing, and regret; of fear, disappointment, and beauty; of love, shame, and boredom; of grief, joy, and, confusion.
I think this is always true. But it's at those times when the highs are high and the lows are low that life feels particularly...swirly.
When you just got married and your mom is dying.
When your child took his first steps and your partner lost her job.
When you’re devastated by the news and you’re in love.
When you just got the big promotion and a cancer diagnosis.
When someone asks us how we're doing, we want to offer a succinct and tidy answer.
Maybe that's because we don't have the energy to get into the big, tangled, gnarly, complicated mess of it all; or we're afraid the person asking was just being nice, or doesn’t have the time for a real answer; or we don't even know how the hell we're doing; or we're afraid of scaring people away by being too real.
But most of the time how we're *really* doing defies the one word or three word answer.
So how do we respond when someone asks how we’ve been? How do we sum up our beautiful, painful, complex lives?
Usually it goes something like this:
“How are you??”
Ugggghhhh. So deeply unsatisfying.
What if we want something better? What if we want to respond in a real way?
Before considering how we might choose to answer this question to others, there's something even more crucial about considering how we answer it to ourselves:
We are all constantly telling ourselves stories.
We tell stories about ourselves and about the people in our lives, stories about who we are and who we were and what is or is not possible for us. We don’t even know we’re doing it and we believe these stories are fact.
This is something I talk about a lot with clients. I’m often asking them to consider “what story they are telling themselves” about such and such while they try not to roll their eyes.
Brene’ Brown talks about this a lot too. One of us is copying the other and I can’t remember who, but THERE'S NO TIME TO SORT OUT THOSE DETAILS RIGHT NOW. The point here is that we all tell stories, without knowing we’re telling stories, and the stories we tell have consequences.
The good news is that by bringing awareness to these stories, we can begin to question them. We can begin to take away the power of the stories we tell that keep us small and stuck.
We might think the answer to “how are you?” is objective. We consider the facts of our lives and answer accordingly. No storytelling involved. Nothing to see here, folks!!!
But the fact is there are many ways to answer the question “how are you?” and they are all true. So if we’re telling stories anyway, why not consider the impact of how we tell it.
What kind of storytellers are we?
Do we tend to filter out the good things? The bad ones? What’s our angle? Our point of view? Who are the main characters? (Ok that one’s easy. We are. We always are.)
Most importantly, how are these storytelling choices (what we highlight and what we edit out) affecting the way we actually experience our lives?
There are dangers in oversimplifying, in being reductive storytellers who only tell the good parts or only tell the bad parts.
When we focus only on the good and choose not to (ever) acknowledge our suffering (grief, sadness, anxiety, shame, fear, loneliness), we risk several things happening:
-Missing the opportunity to offer ourselves compassion and care.
-Abandoning ourselves in our time of need.
-Our suffering getting louder and more intense until we finally pay attention. (By then we have a much, bigger problem on our hands.)
-Intensifying the habits we engage in to numb and avoid suffering (e.g., excessive and mindless consumption--of alcohol, drugs, food, sex, t.v. social media, work, exercise, etc...)
-Missing out on learning something we need to learn.
-Missing the opportunity to develop resilience.*
*We become resilient not by avoiding suffering, but by learning how to face it, and therefore discovering that (AHA!!!) we can face it. We become resilient by learning that bad shit can happen to us and we can survive, recover, and (eventually) even thrive.
Or the flip side, and perhaps more obviously, there are risks to only focusing on the bad stuff:
-When we focus only on our suffering, we get fixated on it, mired in it. The suffering amplifies as we focus on it.
-We forget to notice, appreciate, and savor the beauty, love, creativity, friendship, peace and meaning that exists in our life right now, in spite of or even possibly because of the suffering. Perhaps these good things exist only in moments here and there, or perhaps a whole aspect of our lives is good and solid and nourishing, but we forget to notice because the bad is so loud, so demanding of our attention. Suffering makes us narrow our view and miss out on a lot of goodness.
So, when someone asks us “how are you?” or when we consider this question ourselves...what if instead of weighing the good and bad and deciding which side is winning on this particular day, week, month, year... what if we refused to choose…
What if instead, we practiced looking for the swirl.
Why would we do this? What are the potential benefits?
1. Becoming more aware of the good that already exists can improve our mood and improve the quality of our lives. It can make us feel more connected to the people in our lives and to ourselves. It can help us feel more grateful. It can help us notice and savor what is beautiful and meaningful and joyful. It can make life feel more fun, more worthwhile, and more rich.
2. We find what we seek. If we start looking for beauty, goodness, kindness, and whatever else we might be missing, we will find it more and more. It’s there, hidden in plain sight. It’s just waiting to be noticed.
3. In opening to the “bad” part of the swirl, the suffering, we may notice things that aren't going well quietly whispering in the background. If we pay attention, we can catch these whispers before they become screams.
4. In our willingness to attend to our own suffering with self-compassion, we learn that we can survive hardship, that we can survive life. We discover our courage and grit. We develop resilience. When we can befriend suffering, we learn that we can trust and rely on ourselves.
5. Life becomes richer when we open to it all. When we stop trying to reduce and summarize, we can learn to embody and experience the fullness that life has to offer. We can slow down and be more present.
6. Lastly, there's something liberating about simply naming how we’re actually doing. It can be such a relief to tell the honest, complicated truth about our lives-- to ourselves first--and then, perhaps, to others.
Extra credit opportunity!!
If we can effectively convey the nuance and messy contradiction that is life to others, our vulnerability and authenticity opens the door to connection.
If I share my true, untidy answer when someone asks how I’m doing (rather than a predictable and superficial soundbite), I'm more likely to be met with empathy, interest, and compassion.
The listener may hear something in my answer that resonates in them.
They may feel less alone in the world.
They may feel more comfortable offering a real answer in response.
My vulnerability serves as an invitation to theirs.
Of course there’s always the possibility that our vulnerability won’t be reciprocated, but that's the risk we have to take if we want the possibility of connection.
So here’s my invitation to you…
Practice widening your view.
Now and again, zoom out to see what you might be editing out.
Become acquainted with all of your life and, in doing so, all of yourself.
Try bringing curiosity, care, and compassion to all the parts.
See if you can embrace the swirl.
Adrift by Mark Nepo
Everything is beautiful and I am so sad.
This is how the heart makes a duet of
wonder and grief. The light spraying
through the lace of the fern is as delicate
as the fibers of memory forming their web
around the knot in my throat. The breeze
makes the birds move from branch to branch
as this ache makes me look for those I’ve lost
in the next room, in the next song, in the laugh
of the next stranger. In the very center, under
it all, what we have that no one can take
away and all that we’ve lost face each other.
It is there that I’m adrift, feeling punctured
by a holiness that exists inside everything.
I am so sad and everything is beautiful.
fara tucker, lcsw
therapist~consultant~teacher in Portland, Oregon